Covenant Week
The future: Process without promise

This is the fifth of five articles examining the St. Andrew’s draft of the proposed Anglican Covenant. A study guide from The Executive Council of the Episcopal Church is also available. This article considers the future of the covenant process. Previous articles considered Sections One, Two, Three and the Appendix.

By Mark Harris

The Anglican Covenant Idea:

The Anglican Covenant “idea” arose from the rather arcane arguments put forward in a variety of settings about the time of the centenary of the Lambeth Quadrilateral (1888-1988), in which first world Anglican theologians and historians took on the question of Anglican identity. Events and movements that in one way or another were inclusive were found often to be at odds with one another. The ordination of women, the advancement of new or novel theological ideas and biblical interpretation (particularly by bishops), the emergence of new voices of Anglicanism in theological centers in what we now call the Global South, and the greater inclusion of gay and lesbian Christians in the life and governance of some of the Anglican Provinces were neither uniformly present or viewed positively across the communion. The search for some sort of Anglican identity was on.

From the beginning the notion of a common “marker” or set of tenets and a skeletal Anglican Communion-wide canon law formed the core of the search for Anglican identity. The Lambeth Quadrilateral quickly became a candidate as an identifying marker. The Quadrilateral was widely recognized as a useful measure for what was needed for reunion. It was not so easily useful as a statement of what Anglicans understood themselves to be. Members of The Episcopal Church could find the Quadrilateral in both its forms in the historical section of the Book of Common Prayer, but little was said about how it might be used as a measure of self-identification.

In the run up to the 1998 Lambeth Conference it was clear that “the Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called by God into the Unity of His Church” was not serving well as a marker of Anglican Identity. Rather local adaptation was leading to divergence of practice that could bring to an end the organizational experiment called the Anglican Communion. At Lambeth 1998 Bishop Spong articulated a form of Episcopal teaching and pastoral ministry that stood at a great distance from some of the members of his own church, and of course from bishops elsewhere in the world. The women bishops present were clearly bishops in local contexts tolerated only. The range of issues concerning human sexuality and practice were a cold lump on the table.

The earliest Global South reaction to the seeming Anglican Communion disarray was directed at the need to discipline bishops who misused scripture and the process of interpreting scripture in order to follow what seemed to be the lead of their cultures. The primary examples of this misuse were, in their eyes, the statements of Bishop Spong, the reality of the ordination of gay and lesbian persons and the blessing of same sex relationships. Why was not Bishop Spong disciplined? Why did Provinces allow blessings and ordinations of gay and lesbian persons to take place?

At the same time Anglicans from the North found the cautions of the Global South reactive, unhearing, and lacking in sensitivity to the local situations to which they were responding. The adaption to local and varying needs was seen as giving away the faith in order to stand with the culture. Bishops on all sides made these accusations and the form of final resolutions of Lambeth 1998 pit the accusers against one another. It was the end of the slow march to Lambeth as a “resolving” conference. There were Resolutions passed, but no resolution to the emerging disarray.

The Emerging Anglican Covenant:

Out of that Conference a renewed effort on two fronts emerged to further the quest for Anglican identity. First, the structures of the Anglican Communion were strengthened, with the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury enhanced and the roles of three regular meetings – the Lambeth Conference, the Primates Meetings and the Anglican Consultative Council – more clearly developed. These became the de facto markers of an Anglican Communion voice and a primary element in answering the question, “Who speaks for the Communion.” Together they were considered “instruments of communion.” Second, the provisions for same sex blessings, the ordination of gay and lesbian persons to ministry, and the ordination of Bishop Gene Robinson, were considered by the Lambeth Commission on Communion who issued The Windsor Report.

The Windsor Report recommended that the Instruments of Communion, and in particular the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Primates Meeting, seek compliance with expressions of regret and repentance and moratoria from blessing or ordaining gay and lesbian persons and from invasive actions by bishops in jurisdictions not their own. The Windsor Report recommended that some form of Anglican Communion covenant – a sort of charter with a minimal set of directives concerning inclusion in the Communion – be developed. Appended to the Windsor Report was a mock up of a possible Anglican Covenant. It died a mercifully quick death.

The Archbishop of Canterbury took the recommendation seriously, however, and appointed a Covenant Drafting Group to develop a covenant statement with that set of directives about how to include or exclude member churches. Their first effort, now called the Nassau Draft, and their second effort, the St. Andrew’s Draft, include in various forms both concerns: a covenant proper and a set of directives (we may read them as preliminary international canons). Further drafts will arise after Lambeth and there is a process of engagement which it is assumed will lead to a formal Anglican Covenant to which subscription will be required if a church is to be part of the Anglican Communion.

I have little doubt that the covenant will be accompanied by some means of addressing membership and issues of inclusion and exclusion. The stunning failure of past drafts to produce a widely acceptable section or appendix on canonical provisions concerning inclusion or exclusion does not mean that that effort will not go on or that it will not be part of the final product.

The Final Form of the Anglican Covenant:

What will the presentation copy of the Covenant include?

Some predictions – The Covenant itself will, I believe, be a very brief document inclusive of the first three elements of the Lambeth Quadrilateral – Scripture, Creed and Sacrament. The fourth element – the Historic Episcopate – will be expressed in an expanded form, probably including some reference to bishops in synods and therefore to Primates. It will include in some form the “Five Marks of Mission” that were the product of the Inter Anglican Standing Commission on Mission and Evangelism (IASCOME).

When the Anglican Covenant is presented to the churches in final form it will in all likelihood include a form of an accession clause that stipulates that inclusion in the Anglican Communion is dependent on acting in ways that do not aggrieve other member churches or sufficient numbers of bishops of various churches.

The Anglican Covenant will attempt to solve the matter of Anglican identity by providing a greater sense of inter-Provincial order and some way of exercising discipline. It will of course have to be tried, or else its force as a determining marker for Anglican Identity will be lost. The Anglican Church of Canada and The Episcopal Church will be prime candidates for testing the discipline implied in the accession clause, assuming that we subscribe to the Covenant at all.

What will be lost forever is (i) the notion that the Anglican Communion is a fellowship of churches – a koinonia – and not a church – an ekklesia, and (ii) the notion that the Historic Episcopate is capable of adaptation to the varying needs of peoples and nations.

The promise of the Anglican Covenant is a greater sense of Anglican identity. The process is almost certainly leading to an identity that we will find hard to recognize as Anglican. The end result of the Anglican Covenant idea will not be a greater sense of who we are, but a greater sense of what we have become – the Patriarchy of Canterbury (located who knows where).

In all likelihood The Episcopal Church will not be party to the signing. We will not be alone.

The Rev. Dr. Mark Harris is a deputy to the 2009 General Convention from the Diocese of Delaware. He is a member of Executive Council and keeps the blog Preludium.

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